In times of Corona, I think it is safe to assume that we are all going through something new, a situation that we cannot possibly oversee correctly, and that this year is starting to feel like we are living in a Kafka-novel. For me, it only adds to the alien feeling I have been experiencing for about 9 months now.
You see, my children were kidnapped by their father in 2019 and despite all my legal, relentless and correct efforts to get them back and to get him to adhere to the same verdict we have lived by for a decade, I seem to wake up in this nightmare again and again since July 2019 and I am convinced I am reliving groundhog day. The girls went on holiday just like they have been doing for the last 10 years, three times a year but this time they never came back.
Every single part of this experience has been new to me – and every time I think I have reached a new definition of heartbreaking, I seem to find another one. And then there was the time were I realized: if I do not slit my wrists now, I never will. But I haven’t and I won’t because the one thing that keeps me going – that one day they will return to me – keeps me alive. Keeps me smiling even. The one thing that makes me hang on that cliff-side of despair, is also what makes me not fall in, what makes me strong and determined, I am sure every parent will know what I mean.
I am not trying to be dramatic. I am telling you this – the world basically – because I get questions about my girls (why are they not with me? why did I move to Belgium all of a sudden?) and I am reluctant to explain. Are you surprised when I tell you it is partly shame? How the f* could this happen to me? And yes, I see the looks of some: what on earth happened that he did this? I see the speculations in people’s eyes about my life abroad and the not so average life I have always led, unorthodox choices I have made but which I still stand by. I have also tried to spare the girls, let me not bombard them with adult issues they might not understand, let us not involve everyone we know. And then there is the roller-coaster of emotions you seem to find yourself on. Late nights using a whole box of tissues because of all the crying and blubbering, conversations with friends that give me courage.. I have been thrown between every single corner of the emotional spectrum and yes, I do feel battered and bruised because of it. The angel on the right shoulder whispering that I should spare the girls from complex emotions and not lay my sadness on them and the devil on the other shoulder replying I did not put them in this situation to begin with. You can imagine the scenarios. But what to do?
I will refrain myself from going into the legal stuff and explaining why this has not been resolved yet, partly because I have no clue but let me also just bite my tongue and limit myself to “Mexico is more corrupt than I thought” and “my ex has a deeper grudge than I ever thought possible”. But it does not serve me to dwell. I am using the proper channels and they appear not to be strong measures. I realize a lot in society is based on trust. Trust that I am loosing by the minute.
So there it is. My dirty laundry. My Achilles heel. My Godot I am waiting for. My Kafka.
Much to anyone’s surprise – most of all my own – I returned to my home country this year to settle down. Home country, what am I saying; I even moved back to my home town! It is a time warp if ever there was one but yes (to answer the question that I know is on your lips), it is still home.
Often I am worried that I insult people when I do not recognize them but you have to admit that people do change in the time span of two decades. To some I can honestly say they have not changed a bit but it has happened that I just did not recognize a person and when they – not very impressed at the time – tell me their name, I honestly went “OH MY GOD..!” Probably not flattering and I do feel guilty when it happens but when I encounter someone that is no longer the pimply scrawny pale guy with the pony tail from 20 years ago, it actually can be regarded as a compliment. (Try convincing them of that though..)
I often get asked if I will be able to adjust again. I am convinced I will. I can adapt almost anywhere so I can re-adjust at home, right? (I might be so incredibly wrong in this regard, I do not know yet, I will keep you posted.) If anything, I am happy and grateful this is home, life is pretty well-arranged here if you want it to be. Yes, I need to re-discover things but at least I can do it in my own language and I can ask people I know. No learning kiswahili, no trying to meet people. The funniest thing was getting used to recycling. I recycled in every country I lived in but it just works differently in every place. In Belgium, there are different colours containers and bags and I have actually gone as far as to take a picture of some garbage, sending the picture to the whatsapp family group, asking what goes in which bin. Garbage, not the sector or level I would have expected issues to be honest.
I am also asked on a regular basis when I will be leaving again. As it stands… I will not. Not many people believe me though. I never really plan life for longer than some years ahead, this is true, my biggest and only lifelong commitment are my children, but I am not sure I am up for a longterm and life-altering move again. Ask me again in some years. I do not consider myself a rolling stone. I don’t think. But who knows.
The one thing to coming home that is really weird, and the thing fellow expats had warned me about, is that I recognize the place and the people, and they recognize me, or so it seems, but I am not the same person and it is hard to explain in what way. So it feels very double to reminisce. This feeling is amplified for me personally because I am now teaching in the school where I went myself and walking the halls in a different role is confrontational to say the least.
The one thing that is not weird at all, but which I was prepared for as well, is that I am homesick for Africa, maybe even more than I had anticipated. I guess it is like longing for your childhood: it was great while it lasted but there is no going back because it just isn’t there anymore. Africa is, of course, but my African life isn’t: all my friends moved by now. (Give or take a few.) I will go back, for sure, but as it stand now, just for a holiday: soak up that golden sun, and smell those dusty plains. I guess you can take the girl out of the wild, but you cannot take the wild out of the girl.
Since moving from one continent to the other was a big change, I am trying to experience as many new things with my girls as I possibly can. So when they asked if we could go to Lollapolooza – the 3 day music festival – I was quick in saying yes. Whether we spend a weekend in the Atacama desert or we go and listen to Lenny Kravitz and Post Malone in park in Santiago, it is all new to them so fine by me. I am already happy they are not anti-social, and have some interests besides spending time on their computer.
I have to say festivals have become quite a bit more expensive than when I was a teenager but I have to admit my last ticket purchase is quite a while ago. The atmosphere at the festival itself was very relaxed, it probably helps that it was an alcohol-free festival. I did walk in cloud of a secondhand weed smoke for the full time we were there though. Very chill indeed. Leave it to the Belgians to smuggle in booze though, resourcefulness translated in ziplock bags in bras and the likes. The girls did not spend one single minute with me by the way, we entered and like an arrow out of a bow, they were off. All the better. And they are now enthusiastic fans of twenty one pilots.
Another musical event that they were definitely not asking for but which I wanted them to try was an opera. The opera in Santiago is not only a very beautiful building, but for them to experience some Verdi seemed like an equally important cultural experience to me. If they then decide they are not fans, fine by me, but you have to try anything once, no? So we read the story of “La Fuerza del Destino” the day before (nothing worse than not being able to follow) and we dressed up the day itself and off we went.
I know that I am an incredible cry baby myself and I will tear up with a good book, movie – even with a good song for god’s sakes – but I did not exactly expect them to appreciate it quite the same way. We had watched ‘Pretty Woman’ on Netflix some days before and Vivian in the movie had been moved by opera as well so I was hoping they would be open to the idea.. When the second break came, the youngest said (in a very disappointed voice I must add): “another break? how long is this opera?” Sitting still for 3 hours did seem a tad long for her. They also made the very correct observation that the people with the expensive seats had dressed up but that people in the upper balconies had not, which I found an incredible pity. But I think my eldest daughter appreciated it. She is also the one that plays flute so maybe that had something to do with it.
Anyway. So they are two experiences richer. Both music but very different. I can but only offer, right?
When I was a child, I had an imaginery friend. I am fully aware that I can pretend to say this in a very neutral tone of voice but it is a source of jokes – or at least some frowning. My brothers still tease me with this fact and my mother has admitted in the past she contemplated visiting a shrink with the child version of me. Why on earth a person with four siblings still feels the urge to invent another person is beyond me now but I vividly recall my friend, we had actual conversations in which I acted out both participants. (Okay so a shrink might not have been a bad idea.)
So imagine my relief (joy even) when I come across a word as “jouska”, which means as much as ‘playing out a hypothetical conversation in your head’. The word that acknowledges that sane adults talk to themselves.
What a beautiful word. What a beautiful concept. What a beautiful realisation that I am not the only person doing this. I mean, if there is a word for it, it is common, no? I actually play out dialogues in my head so often, and so well of course, I have thought about a job as a writer for Netflix, because yes of course: I even imagine the looks, pauses, movements and setting too. Doesn’t everyone?
I have said this before but it still sometimes hits me as a surprise in an unexpected moment: it is enormously gratifying to do a great purge in your life. Since I was forced to fit my entire life into 2 suitcases, I went back to basics: I no longer dust pointless trinkets on the cupboard or re-arrange my closet when the season changes. I simply do not own enough. And as it so happens, we moved to a small apartment so I can get it clean in a reasonable amount of time and I do not mow a lawn. Thank god, because I never did that anyway but now I no longer have staff. (I do realize how that sounds but it is what it is.)
The nicest perk is that I found my way back to reading. I have always been an avid reader but ironically enough both a busy life and a lazy life kept me from it at times. Well, let us just admit excuses kept me from it because all you have to do is decide for yourself it is a priority and it becomes one. Since I leave Netflix to the girls, that trap is out of the way. And because I have my workouts in the morning, my lunch breaks and quiet evenings are my time to do what I want to de-stress. Thus I read.
I forgot how I can lose myself in a book, travel to a place, life in a time and meet people as though they actually exist. What is it they say? Reading is travelling without moving. (I forget where I heard it.) I also comfort myself with the thought that my attention span is not completely ruined by social media. I will gladly admit I am a word geek and I can become truly happy when I read a beautiful word or sentence – or as someone recently said, when an author uses “a hella of a line“. Me happy – and jealous.
Another perk is that I recently re-discovered music. Obviously, I did not have to move to do that but one way or another my new life in the first world made it easier. I use Spotify when I walk to the subway. My workouts are accompanied by an appropriate soundtrack. I even put on some music when I do the dishes (yep, you guessed it, have not done those for years either). Strangely enough, we even listen to music in the office. Last weekend, the girls and I went to Lollapalooza and next week I am taking them to the opera. Come to think of it, I think I started turning down the music when I had a relationship. I now remember that I used to fall asleep with music when I was a teenager.
A friend of a friend (with an amazing blog by the way) made me realize that moving to South America for me also coincided with my girls being more independent. I guess becoming a parent is such a busy and stressful time in the beginning that you no longer have time to do things for yourself. So to all my fellow mums out there: do something for yourself this evening. Take a hot bath. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Put on some tunes. Read a book.
I have learnt another language more than once in my life, for various reasons and with different degrees of success. In school, the French classes were not followed by choice, not met by enthusiasm and only later in life acknowledged as useful. German in school felt easy because it is so similar to Dutch but I would never claim I speak it. Latin? Same thing. Learning how to translate a text is by no means the same as speaking a language. English I seemed to have just picked up. (I think it is was because I was a key-under-the-doormat-child and I watched abnormal amounts of BBC?) Spanish was a very conscious choice, and I followed evening school because I wanted to. My motivation? I wanted to read Marquez in the original language. If even the translation is mesmerizing, then the original must be enchanting. I never managed by the way. His sentences are an average of eight lines long. But hey, I live in a Spanish speaking country so I guess I am still practicing. Swahili was a necessity, there was no communication possible any other way with some Tanzanians so we adapted.
The strangest realization I had so far is that along with grammar, you learn a bit of personality too. The intonation alone, the most common words, the word order.. it all contributes to another attitude. For instance, I find it much easier to get mad in one language than in the other. Also, this is why I believe Google translate doesn’t work. One would never say “this food is quite tasty” in Spanish, much better is the tasty “que rico!” I guess you could say polyglots become a bit schizophrenic in a way.
Even worse is it when you take over an accent. A habit I am particularly guilty of. My children do it too, depending on the teachers they have they will sound more British, American or Canadian. I would, however, never do that in my mother tongue tough.. I think. Then the dirty diphthongs and palatal a’s form my very distinct personality.
People often ask me what language I dream in. Honestly, I do not know. But I count in Flemish. Almost always anyway.
At times, when I walk in my apartment, and I pass that corner where the corridor curves in such a way that I can see straight out of Celeste’s room, my eyes lock on the line of skyscrapers outside, a thousand lights blinking, as they do in a big city. My steps stop, my mind pauses, my brain processes, and while I slowly come to terms with the view not being the small village in Belgium I grew up in, or the rolling hills of Africa where I spent the second half of my life, it dawns on me: I live in Santiago. I still find it a bit eerie. Out of this world. Into this world.
The expat adjustment curve. I learned about it when I followed a course designed to prepare you for leaving your home country. Sixteen years ago, I went through it. And I think it is safe to say I do not remember it all. The past couple of months I went through phase one: the holiday, the honeymoon. I was lucky enough to visit Patagonia, the Lake District, the coast.. it is not that hard to feel like you are on holiday when you have the opportunity to do all that.
I have now reached phase 2: the culture shock. The phase where you realize that you are here to stay and you will need to adapt, integrate. There is only so much you can do to prepare. And then there are the things you never could have guessed. Yes, I am learning more and more Spanish every day. Yes, we know where our favourite bakery is and I have a regular supermarket. Yes, we have established some routines and habits already. Yes, we are getting used to the time zone. And yes, we even had our first bug and were down with a fever for a week. But that was all to be expected. And then there are the things we did not think of.
This may sound different than how I want it to sound but my children grew up with staff in the house: a housegirl in the house, a gardener outside, a driver to take the kids to school. I did not grow up like that, and for 16 years I never really quite adjusted to it. In Africa, running a household also entails a bit more and other things than in Europe so I welcomed the benefits of having help but it never became natural to me. I just assumed it was the same for my kids – now teenagers. Until we moved here. It is clear they are very used to someone else picking up their stuff. I now reluctantly realize they either do not see work or they consciously chose not to do it. I have been hammering on them to learn to see it – and then, of course, to do it. They are of course teenagers, I am sure they couldn’t care less if their shoes are in the middle of the living room. But I have now resorted to a chores list. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt because I too was a teenager once. I am guessing this is not so much the expat curve but the teenager curve.
In many other ways, this society offers us much more convenience than what my girls are used to. Coming from the third world, it is sometimes mindblowing to all three of us what you can find in the shop. Let alone online. I will honestly admit it can be overwhelming. But is also something that you can easily adapt to, too easily and with pleasure, and even become very lazy. If I wanted decent french fries in Tanzania, I knew I had to buy, peel, clean, cut and fry (twice!) potatoes. In Chile, I order them with Ubereats and watch tv while I wait for them to be delivered. It feels totally decadent but we also totally indulge. My main concern is not even that we are becoming lazy but more that this sort of lifestyle is unhealthy. Overall I am not worried. We adapted to life in Africa, we are now adapting here and we will adapt in whatever other part of the world I might ever end up. So lazy now is not lazy forever.
Another small – but in a way significant – thing that caught my attention is sugar. Tanzanians like everything sweet but in order to have sweet tea or sweet chapati, they have to add a spoon of sugar – and they do, 8 spoons even. In Chile, a lot of food is just sweet, manufactured sweet. Especially drinks and desserts. And while in Tanzania many people suffer from self-inflicted diabetes, in Chile there is a lot of awareness and people buy zero-drinks, with aspartame or stevia. But they still all taste sweet. I crave bitter and sour drinks. Or lemon meringue for dessert, or dark chocolate. Is it because I was brought up in Belgium? I really just prefer sour and bitter: a cold beer and very dark chocolate anyone?
I also have to get used to seasons again. We were really thrown in the deep end when we arrived here in winter. I even had to buy winterclothes, since I no longer owned any. But even now, I am writing this when it is spring, and the weather is unstable. The one day I wear a skirt and the next I need a coat. I am not used to checking the weather forecast – and even then you better wear layers because it can change any minute. But it sure beats Belgium where you need to carry an umbrella at all times.
The silliest adjustment is the presence of stairs. In Africa, I could count the buildings with more than one story on one hand. Good thing because I would not have used an elevator in a country where the power goes off all the time. In Santiago, there are so many high buildings, how else can you fit 7 million people in one city? So I work on floor 9 and I live on floor 5. Thank god for elevators. At times, I am forced to take the stairs, my daily subway stop, for instance, counts 4 flights. Not that I mind. But it is a silly realization when your calves hurt and you think ‘oh yes, that: stairs’. And some people refuse to take an apartment on a high floor because of the earthquakes – and yes, as adjustments go: a swaying building during a 5,5 quake, is a big adjustment!
Subways are also an adjustment. They are extremely convenient and after city trips to London, for example, I used to find it charming that you can come above ground and be somewhere else. But in Santiago, I find it especially confusing because I never see how I get anywhere and the ultimate goal is to get to know this city. I usually come above ground and I need to use google maps and use the Andes to try and regain my orientation.
Missing my friends is one I knew would hit me. I just never even considered that the time zone would add to it. When I sit on my coach in the evening and I want to chat, most of them are asleep. And when I wake up, I have a number of messages. But this way, communication is limited to WhatsApp monologues from me in the evening and reading the monologue of replies in the morning. Not ideal.
And allow me to finish with a bit of a philosophical contemplation. This is a fleeting thought I had the other day while sitting on a bench and I was just randomly thinking.. If I would stumble, trip or fall while walking the streets of Santiago, I would still feel embarrassed. I assume it is an innate feeling. But why? I do not know anyone here. I will probably never see the bystanders of that moment again in my life or not recognize them. No one knows me. No one recognizes me. No one I meet in a bar will say he went to school with my cousin or that he used to live next to my best friend. That is a weird thought. But also a nice one. I could totally re-invent myself if I wanted to. Luckily I am relatively happy with myself and mere adjustments will do. They call it integration, I am told.
Some places are worth more than one visit. (And if I had heaps of money and time, that would be the majority of places.) Some places are also worth going back to show them to someone you care about. And so I planned a long weekend in Valparaiso with the girls. The stress to do the sights was gone for me (yes, I am that person that makes lists and frantically tries to do it all) and I knew that the girls would take homework and would need to sleep in at least once, so there was no plan. (If you know me, you will be surprised: me without a plan.)
So we wandered around, walked the colourful streets, took a funicular, gave our honest opinion about the street art to each other and took snapshots of each other too..
I did book one thing: a city tour. But the guide was excellent: knowledgeable and accommodating. He was very flexible and was trying to give us a feel for the place, instead of ticking a list. So when Celeste said ‘can we go on another funicular’, the guide took us to one, a prime example of a modern refurbished one that still showed us the old design and system. And I do enjoy hearing about the history of a place, it does give vital insights. It turns out that after a glory period for Valparaiso, it was destroyed more than once, and after the people of Valpo rebuilt it more than once, the Panama Canal was built, making it a less important harbour. Making it unnecessary, to be frank. After the city tour, the girls and I were even able to recognize some street known artists due to their typical style. Our Valparaiso education had paid off.
We even made a quick pit stop at Viña del Mar for ice-cream. I was glad I saw the neighbouring town because I have never seen two towns this close by that are so different. The colourful charming chaos on the hills next to the modern, neatly arranged coastal town. It must be nice to live in one and always be able to jump into the next one for a distraction.
This time around, I also decided to try a restaurant that a colleague suggested. And I am glad he did because what a good suggestion that was! I had also been given the advice to go early because I would be turned down otherwise, and indeed: 90% of all the tables were reserved when we arrived and after we took one of the few empty ones, people were turned away or had to wait. We decided to indulge with seafood, champagne and desserts. Totally worth it. Every bite of the meal and every second of the weekend.